Thursday, February 22, 2007

Chronicles 40 - The Magic Bullet

It's been a few weeks since I've blogged, one reason is that I'm actually - shock, horror - writing. I've been working around the clock on a biographical drama assignment after an initial period of inertia and procrastination. I started working on a treatment so the producer would have some idea of where I'm going by the time I got to script stage.

The trouble is, when I start writing treatments I find it difficult not to include a) dialogue and b) scene headings so it very quickly turns into a 'scriptment' which I don't think is a bad thing neccessarily. At least if there is broad agreement on the 'scriptment' it's a shorter hop to the first draft script than a treatment.

Whenever I write a new script I'm always looking for a magic bullet, some paradigm, a matrix that I can easily slot my ideas into with the guarantee that all the boxes of the underlying plot structure will be ticked off. This process may entail picking up a new or old book on structure or hunting around for the perfect outlining technique which, for me, seem to differ from script to script.

I picked up a copy of Blake Snyder's 'Save The Cat' software after reading his book. These days I tend only to buy books on screenwriting by authors who have actually sold or produced their work so Blake's book took my fancy. Unfortunately I couldn't get into the Save The Cat structuring software. It didn't really click for me, hopefully it will improve in future versions, but Blake's book has definitely been a help in structuring the outline.

It's interesting that in a market, totally saturated with screenwriting books, one can always pick up new ideas and approaches. I used his beat sheet along with index cards and it helped me gather the disparate, fractured and oftentimes very expositional true life information into a viable story structure.

I like the way he describes the mid-point as either a false defeat or a false victory. I hadn't really thought of it in that way before. My mid-point was clearly a false victory with the 'bad guys closing in', as Blake describes the 55-75 page section, transforming the false victory, in my case, into a true defeat where the heroine only finds her spiritual redemption and 'closure' 150 plus years later.

He also offers some simple but very effective advice which after years of writing is surprisingly easy to forget i.e. thou shalt have conflict in every scene! - and - each scene shall have an emotional or energy transformation e.g. guy comes home from work and has just got the promotion of a lifetime (positive) and finds his wife is leaving him (negative). That way scenes are always moving from positive to negative or vice versa. One place where they do this brilliantly is on high-end American TV thrillers such as 24 where as soon as a character catches a break, WHAM, he is floored by the next dramatic punch.

By incorporating these techniques along with the classic, "come in late, get out early" you inject pace and energy into your script. Actually, the first place I read about the whole plus, minus thing was in McKee's 'Story', but, hey, whatever the source, it's a GREAT tip. That's the sign of a well-written script, the sign that you are in competent hands, when the script just rocks along. It's punchy, it's a page turner, you're high one second then bang - the rug pull - and you're down. It's the sort of script you get sent and you groan thinking, "Oh God, when am I going to find time to read this opus", and the next thing it's 2:15 a.m. and you can't put it down. A good script is like a sine wave on an Oscilliscope screen, a bad script is a flatline - the patient's dead on arrival!

Back to magic bullets - the magic bullet for writing is structure, structure, structure but the magic bullet for producing is - The Star - those strange human commodities that are blessed with various superpowers, one of them being, stand back people, the 'domino effect'.

A nod of interest from the star will, for an independent movie, bring on the sales agent who will pre-sell territories to distributors for a portion of the production budget. It will also trigger other finance and attract other stars or at least solid 'names' and the whole thing spirals into a greenlight scenario. That's 'star power'.

Now, as an independent producer you are often not in the position to make pay or play offers or even offers based on actual money in the bank, (since you need the star to raise/greenlight the finance) and of course you are not in a position to offer even a contingent 'studio quote' i.e. what an actor would expect to get from a studio as opposed to his 'indie-quote', so how do you convince his/her agent to forward the script to his/her client when he makes a very nice living, (thank you very much) fielding studio offers all day long?

Well, your director is a key element, if he/she has strong cache then that will definitely attract talent and inspire them to work for a lower fee. The second thing is the script. If the star is cool with the director and then he reads the script and gets excited by it, possibly more excited than his last vapid, watered down, let's-hit-every-demographic studio flick then he will sign on for a drastically reduced fee.

You see where this is going, right? Bottom line? It's the same bullet. Nail the script and you nail the star.

Ciao for now